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Posted by Mary in PA on 8/9/2010

As an owner-builder, or newbie GC if you like, I’m sure I’m making many errors along the way. Some I catch and correct, others I’ll never know about, and some don’t show up until the next step… when it’s too late (read too expensive) to go back. Such was the case with our footing trench.


John and I had dutifully measured and set our batter boards prior to the site excavation. Then the ‘top of block’ strings (attached to the batter boards) were let down to make way for the pad excavation. I was unclear on whether or not they were done with the building pad, and then the next morning I arrived on the site to find them most of the way through digging the footing trench… without me first re-establishing the reference strings and painting a line on the pad for the trencher to follow. When the workman climbed down from his big machine, I asked him if he had done that (marked the dig line) and he replied that he had eyeballed it. I think that in all things ‘foundation’, eyeballing it is not a term you want to hear. The depth of the trench was spot-on, because he used his laser level and was still able to reference our batter boards. And the perimeter trenches were pretty good too. However, the trench interior wall between the main body of the shop and the lean-to shed was off by a several inches. What I learned here is that I need to specifically ask regarding critical overlaps between my tasks and the contractors’ tasks. I can just rely on the contractor to volunteer the status info. Be proactive in getting ‘who’s on deck’ info – that’s the lesson.


Code calls for an 8-inch-high, 24-inch-wide footer. When I first saw that, I thought why do we need a footer 24 inches wide to set an 8-inch block wall on? Couldn’t it be just 10 or 12 inches? Well now I was happy we had a full 24 inches of width! The mason explained to me that he would use that width to account for the, ahem – tolerance error – in the trench. Good news.


The mason had a tight schedule with several other jobs in his hopper and he wanted to bang out our job as quickly as possible. He assigned five guys to the site and they almost finished it in one day. It had been about 95 that day with high humidity and it was obvious they had all be working very hard. I think laying block has got to be one of the most physical jobs there is. Really tough work!


One of the nice things about being an owner-builder is our ability to interface directly with the ‘boss’ for each trade rather than going through the builder. For example, before we hired the mason, we met with him to discuss ideas for extra rebar strengthening the block wall and also tying into the future slab. He also gave us ideas for using a parge coat above grade because I wanted nicer appearance than block but couldn’t afford stone. None of these things added greatly to the cost. They were just little quality issues that take a few minutes to work out, but will hopefully improve the results for a long time to come. And I find it interesting talking with the tradesmen. Most of them are small-business people and they take pride in their work and want to have a good result too.


View from general area of future house site. Driveway turnaround, shop foundation on the left.
Block wall showing cut-out for 12x12 overhead door in shop.

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